Handel’s Rinaldo is famous for being the first Italian opera written for the London public. It opened at the Queen’s Theatre on the Haymarket in 1711 and, with its impressive staging, virtuosic music and fashionable Italian singers, it must have swept the London audience off its feet. It remained Handel’s most performed opera during the rest of his lifetime. Last night’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw, while providing for an enjoyable evening, fell short of sweeping the Amsterdam public off its feet.

The Lautten Compagney © Ida Zenna
The Lautten Compagney
© Ida Zenna

The Lautten Compagney, a period instrument ensemble based in Berlin, is undoubtedly composed of very good instrumentalists, and we were treated to many virtuosic solos, in particular on the flute and the recorder. However, I found that the way conductor Wolfgang Katschner repeatedly emphasized individual performances felt a bit contrived and worked to the detriment to the whole piece’s structure. He also kept rather swift tempi pretty much at all times, which did not help dramatic effect and left little space for vocalists to express emotion. A couple of humorous notes – the sound of a duck amongst the birds singing prior to Almirena’s aria “Augelletti che cantare” (“Little birds that sing”), or a harpsichord solo interrupted by a joke – were amusing but did not really help the overall flow.

The plot of Rinaldo is loosely based on Tasso’s epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (“Jerusalem delivered”), a mythified tale of the First Crusade and the knights of Godfried of Bouillon. It tells of the celebrated knight Rinaldo’s fight against Argante, the Muslim king of Jerusalem, and his lover and ally, the sorceress Armida. Unlike other operas based on the same poem, Armida’s love for Rinaldo is not the focus here: the libretto introduces a new character, Almirena, daughter of Goffredo (Godfrey), who is engaged to Rinaldo. In an attempt to unsettle Rinaldo and consequently defeat the crusaders’ army, Armida kidnaps Almirena. After a complicated series misunderstandings and battles, Rinaldo is reunited with his fiancée, Jerusalem is conquered, Armida and Argante are defeated, and, to please the 18th-century London public, they convert to Christianity.

Dutch mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen was a warm-voiced Almirena, with a darker colour than most. With only four arias, this is a surprisingly small role, and I found it strange that she was not given the opportunity to shine more in her entrance aria “Combatti da forte”, whose da capo section was cut. Almirena gets to sing the famously moving “Laschia ch’io pianga” which Ms Vermeulen delivered affectingly, although her choice of ornamentation in the da capo might not have showed her voice in the best way. Her short, final aria, “Bel piacere”, was lovely.

Carlos Mena’s performance as Rinaldo unfortunately did not help change my opinion that contraltos are better cast than countertenors in this kind of repertoire. He certainly demonstrated polished musicianship throughout the performance, but I did not find the voice particularly appealing nor suited to this role. Particularly, his lower range lacked power and sounded unpleasantly disconnected from the middle register. He often sounded underpowered by the orchestra in the showpiece aria “Venti, turbini” or in his duet with Almirena in Act I. He fared better in the heroic “Or la tromba”, in which he displayed apt coloratura. He was probably at his best in the tender “Cara sposa”. As a whole, though, I found he communicated little emotion, certainly if compared to the poignant and passionate interpretation that Ewa Podleś gave of the role in this same hall in 1999.

In the Muslims’ camp, baritone Tobias Bernt and soprano Eleonore Marguerre made an enjoyable couple of villains and provided perhaps the better moments of the evening. One might ideally prefer a darker, bass-like sound for the role, but Tobias Bernt sang Argante’s impressive aria “Sibillar gli angui d’Aletto” with verve and tasteful ornamentation. I have heard more impressive entrances for Armida (“Furie terribili”), but Eleonore Marguerre seemed to warm up as the evening advanced and the way she sang her arias of Act II (“Vo’ far guerra” especially) reminded us that the sorceress Armida is as much if not more a prima donna role as the kind Alminera.

***11